IF HE CAN

“What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.” The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my disbelief!” [Mark 9:23-24 (NLT)]

Beauty Berry FlowerPrayer is calling on God’s power; it’s like calling in the big guns to fight the battle. When doubt in the efficacy of prayer sneaks in, however, it’s more like calling in the big guns but not believing they’re loaded with enough ammunition. I am often like the father in Mark 9 who qualified his request that Jesus heal his son by saying, “If you can.” Like that father, I profess to believe but I need God to help me believe more! Sometimes, the enemy sneaks into my heart and causes me to doubt both the ammunition and God’s aim.

Looking for a feel-good movie to escape from the challenges of the day, we recently streamed the War Room. Not to be confused with the 1993 documentary The War Room, the war room in this 2015 movie is a converted closet with prayer requests covering the walls rather than an Arkansas political campaign headquarters. Focusing on the power of prayer, the story is about a crumbling marriage that is redeemed by prayer.

In one memorable scene, Elizabeth Jordan, the woman in the troubled marriage, and Miss Clara, a prayer warrior extraordinaire, are walking together when they’re confronted by a knife-wielding mugger demanding their money. As Elizabeth starts to get out her wallet, Miss Clara successfully defies him just by saying, “You put that knife down right now in the name of Jesus!” The next scene shows a frazzled Elizabeth reporting the incident to a skeptical policeman while the unruffled Miss Clara enjoys some ice cream.

Even the most positive reviews of this movie were critical of the unreality of those scenes but, as improbable as they were, their inclusion in the movie were necessary because they demonstrate the absolute faith—the total certainty—that is necessary for truly powerful prayer. Facing that mugger, Miss Clara had no doubt that she was in God’s hands and was certain that He would rescue her if she called on Jesus’ name. Later, as she calmly consumed both her and Elizabeth’s ice cream, it is obvious she wasn’t surprised by God’s protection. She expected it, as should we all if we truly believe. After all, nothing is impossible with God!

I’m not sure that God wants us to respond to a weapon-wielding robber the way Miss Clara did but I think He does want us to have the kind of faith demonstrated in that scene. When we come to Him in prayer, we must have faith enough to put our entire lives in His hands. We must believe that our prayers can actually make a difference. Indeed, prayer is the key to winning all those battles we can’t win on our own.

When we pray, do we ask with our lips but doubt in our hearts? When we ask, are we surprised when we receive? Father in heaven, I don’t know why I still doubt when you’ve shown me over and over again that my prayers do not fall on deaf ears. I have faith, dear Lord; please, help me have more!

Faith is not believing that God can. It is knowing that God will. [Ben Stein]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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LIGHT AND TEMPORARY

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)]

monarch butterflyNo matter what translation is used for the above verses, I find it difficult to picture something that is described as suffering, trouble, affliction, or tribulation as being small, little, or light. Moreover, while I’d like afflictions to be so, they rarely seem to be temporary or momentary. Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs but what exactly is “momentary” and “light” when it comes to suffering and affliction?

While Paul was writing about his persecution as a follower of Christ, what of other hardships and woes? Does “light and momentary” describe the twelve years of constant bleeding and painful treatments endured by the woman with the “issue of blood,” the thirty-eight years the man lying by the pool at Bethesda had been an invalid, or Job’s grief at the loss of his family and the agony of his illness? Is “temporary” the sixteen years Anthony Broadwater spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or the thirty years Michael J. Fox has suffered from Parkinsons? Is “momentary, light distress” the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross, the nine months during which Elizabeth Smart experienced being raped by her kidnapper, or the six years John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war? Does “passing trouble” describe the mental anguish of my bipolar uncle who spent the last twelve years of his life in a mental hospital? Could the twenty years my brother-in-law struggled with Parkinson’s or the thirty my sister dealt with MS be described as “short-lived”? What of the nearly fifty-five years Joni Eareckson Tada has spent as a quadriplegic and the chronic stabbing pain, COVID complications, and two cancer diagnoses she’s endured? Is her suffering merely “momentary, light distress”? When we’re the ones hurting, even if only from an abscessed tooth or a pinched nerve, nothing about it seems light or momentary!

Paul knew what he was talking about; he’d been whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and his life was in continual jeopardy because of his ministry. He knew struggle, hunger, betrayal, hardship, persecution, pain, and affliction first-hand. Nevertheless, he also knew that every trial, no matter how he suffered, was just a prelude to the resurrection power of Jesus!

Regardless of its length or severity, for a believer, our suffering here on earth is light and momentary, especially in light of the many blessings we receive in the midst of our afflictions or the adversities suffered by others. Our suffering is small and momentary when compared to what we actually deserve or to what Jesus did for us. Most of all, whatever our afflictions may be, they are “but for a moment” in the light of eternity. No matter how long we live or how difficult our lives are, our years here are a mere dot on God’s eternal timeline. Though our afflictions may last a lifetime, they will not have the last word! What waits for us is eternal not temporary and, rather than light, it is heavy because it is the entire weight of God’s glory!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18 (ESV)]

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV)

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ANSWERED PRAYERS

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

May he grant your heart’s desires and make all your plans succeed. [Psalm 20:4 (NLT)]

santaWhat do you hope to find tucked into your Christmas stocking or deposited under the tree Christmas morning? From the above words, it’s easy to think God is promising something like Christmas morning every day. Although He promises to hear and answer our prayers, let’s remember that He’s not so specific as to how He’ll answer them.

Remember the story of King Midas? As a reward for the King’s kindness, Dionysus offered Midas anything he wanted. Coveting wealth, Midas wanted everything he touched to be changed into gold. Although he was warned to think seriously about such a wish, the king insisted. How thrilled he was when the twigs and stones he handled became precious metal. Midas’ joy at his gift began to fade, however, when he discovered that gold roses have no aroma and food became metal before it could be eaten. After a simple touch turned his daughter into a golden statue, the king detested the gift he’d so desired. Taking pity on him, Dionysus told the king to wash in the river Pactolus to lose his golden touch and make things right again.

While the Midas story has pagan beginnings, there is much a Christian can learn from this ancient myth, the first of which is not to love material possessions. When we pray, we shouldn’t act like children looking through Amazon’s “Ready, Set, Play” holiday toy catalog or grown-ups browsing through the Neiman Marcus 200-page Christmas Book and marking the pages with our holiday fantasies. Prayer is not like writing a wish list to Santa for all the gifts we desire and God’s promises are never an excuse for greed or selfishness.

Unlike a mythical Greek deity, God will not give us anything that could harm us. While we’re not likely to ask for a snake or scorpion, we have been known to ask for other things that could bring us harm—the extra money, new job, sexy guy at work, vacation in Vegas, or that big house with an even bigger mortgage. Just like King Midas, our limited (and selfish) perspective cannot possibly see all of the ramifications of our prayer requests. We ask for things without understanding how they may affect our life or the lives of others. We may know what we want but God, in his infinite wisdom, knows what will happen if we get it. If God had given me everything for which I prayed, it would have taken way more than a bath in the river Pactolus to clean up the resulting mess and set things right again. It’s been said that God’s answers are far wiser than our prayers and, indeed, they are. With love and wisdom, in His own time and way, God will always answer our prayers. Let’s give thanks that “Yes” is not always His answer to our requests.

The devil doesn’t come in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for. [Anonymous]

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. [Luke 11:11-13 (NLT)]

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ASK, SEEK, KNOCK

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. [Matthew 7:7 (NIV)]

Ask, seek, and knock—three easy instructions. Ask. Ask as if we mean it, as if we truly care about the answer. Ask as if we believe we’re being heard. Ask with the hunger of a beggar begging bread. Ask with the fervor of someone sinking in quicksand pleading for help. Ask with the thirst of a dying man in the desert requesting water. Ask as if our very lives depend on the answer. Ask.

Seek. Seek as if we were searching for something of value—not a cursory look as if we’d lost a button or dropped a paper clip. Seek as we would for a lost wedding ring, wallet, or child. Seek as we would for an exit from a burning building. Seek by adding efforts to our prayers; after all, we can’t ask God for a harvest without first planting the seeds. Seek as if we care, as if our very lives depended on finding it. Seek.

Knock. Knock as if we truly wanted to enter. Knock with confidence—not shyly as if we don’t know whose door we’re at or timidly as if we’re not sure we’re welcome. Knock and keep knocking as if we desperately need the door to be answered, as if our very lives depended on it. Knock.

We have a promise—God’s promise—and we must ask, seek, and knock as if we believe that promise! Where there is a praying heart, He promises we’ll find a listening God—a God who loves us as a father loves a child. Like a good parent, however, no matter how fervently we ask, how diligently we seek nor how hard we knock, He won’t give us stones or snakes or anything bad for us. While there will be no money for drugs when we need rehab, no car when a bicycle will do, no escape from facing consequences, and even no healing when God’s presence in our pain is enough, there will be mercy, peace, grace, patience, wisdom, strength against sin, and understanding. Rather than sell, loan or rent us His gifts, He gives them to us because He loves us! Trust His promise to generously give good things to those who ask, seek, and knock.

For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! [Matthew 7:8-11 (NIV)]

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HISTORIES

gardeniaThis is what the Lord says: “Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me. [Genesis 22:16-18 (NLT)]

When reading the Bible in canonical order (the order the books are placed in the Bible), the two books of Chronicles seem to be a repeat of the books of Samuel and Kings. When reading the Bible in historical order, with the text arranged in the order in which the events occurred, it becomes evident that their authors didn’t relate identical events the same way. After finishing the last chapter of 2 Chronicles (in which Cyrus allowed the Judeans to go home) in my chronological Bible, I went on to portions of Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Daniel. Following Daniel 6, however, I found myself at 1 Chronicles, chapters 1 through 9 consisting of nine chapters of Israelite genealogy beginning with Adam and continuing on with at least 900 more names. Wondering at its placement and the differences between Kings and Chronicles, I did a little digging.

The books of Kings and Chronicles were written at different times, for different audiences, and for different reasons. Because Kings ends with the release Judah’s King Johoiachin from prison during the reign of Babylon’s Evil-Merodach (562-560 BC), scholars think it was written during the early years of the exile and completed around 560 BC. Chronicles, however, ends more than thirty years later at the conclusion of Judah’s exile. Because several generations of Zerubbabel’s descendants are in its genealogy, scholars think it was written around 450 to 430 BC and possibly as late as 400 BC. Kings seems to have been written for Judah’s exiles in captivity while Chronicles was written for the exiles who returned to their homeland—many of whom, like Zerubbabel, were born in captivity.

Kings presents a distinctly negative view of both the northern and southern kingdoms’ kings. All nineteen of Israel’s kings and twelve of Judah’s twenty kings are portrayed as bad. Moreover, any faults of Judah’s eight good kings (such as their failure to destroy the pagan shrines and David’s adultery with Bathsheba) are mentioned. Written for the exiles, King records the failures of both kingdoms’ earthly kings, their blatant disregard for the law, their rejection of God’s prophets, and their idolatry. Its negative narrative clearly explains why the Jews ended up in captivity with their homeland in ruins. It provided an answer to the exiles’ question of, “How did we get here?”

As for those nine chapters of genealogy in the Chronicles—they answered the returning exiles’ question of, “How is this history relevant to me?” It connected the people, most of whom had never lived in Judah or worshipped at the Temple, with God’s divine plan—a plan that began with Adam and continued through His covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.

Since the returning exiles’ families originally came from Judah, the Chronicler concentrated on the southern kingdom and mentioned the northern one only if relevant to Judah’s story. While he didn’t exactly rewrite history, the Chronicler accentuated the positive and eliminated some of the negative by not mentioning things like the seven years of warfare between Saul’s death and David becoming king of “all Israel” or Absalom’s rebellion. Its genealogy and more positive take on Judah’s history provided this new generation with a more optimistic and hopeful outlook as they rebuilt their nation and looked forward to the coming Messiah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor. [Genesis 49:10 (NLT]

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THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN

So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come. [Matthew 12:31-32 (NLT)]

blue jayWhen speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus delivers what could be called the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, no matter how evil, vicious or long-lasting the sin, any sin (even blasphemy) is forgivable. The good news, however, comes with a “but” when Jesus says blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven.

Reading Jesus’ words—words said by the One whose blood was shed so our sins would be forgiven—is perplexing. If Jesus could forgive the many unnamed sins of those he healed, the soldiers who gambled for his clothing at the foot of the cross, and Peter’s three denials, what sin is so great that even His blood would not cover it? What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit and how does it differ from speaking against the “Son of Man” (who we know to be Jesus)?

This good news/bad news scenario was delivered right after Jesus made it clear that there was no neutral ground when it came to Him—either people were with Jesus on God’s side or without Him on Satan’s side. He was directly speaking to Pharisees—people clearly not on Jesus’s side! They hated Him, were plotting His death, and just had denied proof of Christ’s divinity by attributing His healing miracles to Satan. Theirs wasn’t an act so horrendous that Jesus could not forgive them. Rather, their sin was one of attitude. What was unforgivable was their continual rejection of Jesus and their deliberate choice of Satan over Him.

As shocking as it seems, Jesus even says that blasphemy against Him can be forgiven. The Apostle Paul, for example, freely admitted to blaspheming the name of Christ while persecuting Christians. Yet, he experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness because he did so in ignorance and unbelief. If, however, after encountering the living Jesus on the road to Damascus, being supernaturally blinded, meeting Ananias, and having the scales fall from his eyes so that he knew the truth, Paul had never repented and come to believe in Christ, like the Pharisees, he would have committed the unforgivable sin. It would have become unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit only if, after seeing the Truth incarnate, Paul continued to disparage, attack, and reject Jesus. Fortunately for us, after seeing the truth, Paul did repent and his “blasphemy” was forgiven.

Even scholars and theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this difficult text and I am neither scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, the unpardonable sin appears to be what those Pharisees exhibited: a deliberate. obstinate, resolute, and tenacious resistance to the Spirit’s pursuit and voice. Even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God but the religious leaders, people who knew the prophecies and witnessed His miracles first-hand, blatantly refused to acknowledge Him. They didn’t even bother to dispute the miracles; they chose instead to dispute the source of Jesus’ power by attributing the works of God to Satan. That was unforgivable.

Some theologians think this warning applies only to those people of the 1st century who, like the Pharisees, actually witnessed the irrefutable proof that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and then denied the overwhelming evidence of His divinity. Only God knows for sure. The important thing for us to understand is that, like the unbelieving Pharisees, people freely choose how they will spend eternity and, like Paul, no matter how shameful the sin, when we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, we can be certain that He will forgive us.

Even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:13-16 (NLT)]

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